Children and Scary Media – Bad News Seems to Be Getting Worse

October 3, 2023

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, Department of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

Children and Scary Media – Bad News Seems to Be Getting Worse

When I started graduate school (in 1970), I began doing research on the effects of the media. Things then were so different from today: The main concern was that the violence in media was making us, and especially our children, more violent. I quickly realized that I couldn’t personally relate to these effects; I noticed that violent content didn’t make me angry or make me feel like hitting someone; but it often made me upset or scared. And what I noticed in myself was also happening to children I knew. Along with many collaborators, I ended up spending the better part of my academic career studying how television and movies frighten children and what we can do to protect them. [This is not to belittle the excellent research that has been done on the aggression-promoting effects of media violence, but to recognize that many things that produce intense fears in the media do not involve violence at all, and that fear-inducing media can have profound effects.]

What we have learned about media and fear is still very relevant today. Many surveys show that the more TV children watch, especially before bedtime, the more likely they are to have fears, nightmares, and sleep disturbances. And retrospective studies show that many intense media-induced fright reactions are long-lasting, resulting in phobia-like symptoms that can endure for years! [For example, many adults report having given up swimming in pools or lakes permanently after seeing the movie Jaws as a child.]

We’ve also found that age differences predict the types of things that frighten children. Young children (e.g., up to age 6) are more likely to be frightened by something that looks weird or fierce but is actually harmless, and that as children mature, they’re more likely to be frightened by something that looks normal but can actually hurt you. In addition, because young children don’t fully understand the difference between reality and make-believe, they are more likely than older children to be frightened by fantasy content. Older children are more likely than younger ones to be frightened by abstract threats, such as unseen dangers like the threat of nuclear holocaust. The effectiveness of strategies to help children cope with their fears also varies by the cognitive developmental level of the child.

Looking back on the arc of my career interests, I realize that I didn’t begin to publish research on the news until I had been studying fear effects for 20 years. But when we asked parents to name scary television shows or movies in the early 1980’s, TV news stories were in the top ten in frequency. The age trends in news stories that had frightened children have been consistent with the developmental differences we found in fictitious stories that scare kids. We have observed that the tendency to be frightened by the news increases with age, but younger children are more likely to be frightened by news items if they have a threatening visual component, like natural disasters, floods, accidents, and things that can harm them and their families.

So What’s New?

One thing that has changed dramatically over the past 50 years is the technology that brings media content into our and our children’s lives. In the 1970s, we could watch TV at home, and we could watch movies mostly in theaters. Now we have all forms of media, including computers, cell phones, smartphones, and other devices that allow limitless access to all forms of content. An infinite quantity of images and sounds, both benign and harmful, is more difficult for parents to monitor and control. This makes the stakes higher for parents, teachers, and others who care about the welfare of children.


Research on the Effects of COVID-Related News

Recently, my colleague Kristen Harrison (now at the University of North Carolina) and I agreed that the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States would provide a unique opportunity to explore how children and their parents were responding to a cataclysmic, life-threatening occurrence that was dominating the news. What was unique about this news story was that unlike other major news horrors, the threats and dangers were being experienced pretty much everywhere, and everyone was at potential risk.

Much of the harm posed by COVID deals with abstractions: The virus that harms your health cannot be seen by the naked eye, and the deaths that occurred are rarely shown visually in the media. This suggested that developmental differences in comprehension, emotional responses, and coping strategies might be greater, or at least somehow different from those found in earlier studies.  Given that the frightening events were likely to continue for some time, it was especially important to explore not only what types of negative emotional reactions were occurring in which children, but also how parents were attempting to help their children cope and how effective these efforts were perceived to be.

We conducted a survey of parents’ perceptions of their children’s reactions during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread in the United States (April 17 to 29, 2020).[1]

Using online survey sampling, we polled 1560 parents of children between the ages of 3 and 17. Most of our questions solicited multiple-choice answers, but before seeing many of those items, parents were asked to describe what was happening in their own words.

Here are some major findings, which confirm our expectations that responses would be strong and in accord with many of our developmental predictions:

Responses to COVID Coverage

  • Many parents (55%) reported that media-presented news of COVID produced emotional distress in their children.
  • When parents described their child’s reactions, the most common emotional reactions reflected some form of fear, anxiety, or nervousness. Describing children’s fears, parents included words and phrases ranging from “confused,” “a bit tense” and “a little bit worried,” to “overwhelmed,” “extremely disturbed,” “so terrified,” “horrible anxiety,” “freaking out,” and “screaming that we are all going to die.” Some parents also spontaneously mentioned their child’s sadness, using words like “crying,” “depressed,” “bursting into tears,” and “heartbroken.”
  • Stress symptoms such as seeming nervous and jittery, crying or weeping, and having nightmares or sleep problems were two to three times more prevalent among children frightened by COVID news.
  • Kids with media (TV, computers, iPads, and smartphones) in their bedrooms were more likely to be frightened than those without.
  • Children who were frightened lived in homes receiving more hours of COVID news coverage.
  • Younger children (3 to 7 years) were less likely to be frightened than older groups (8 to 12 and 13 to 17 years).
  • Some abstract, nonvisual threats (e.g., talking about the disease or shortages of equipment) were less frightening to younger (3 to 7) than older groups (8 to 12 and 13-17 years).

Coping with Covid Coverage

  • Most parents of frightened children (93%) tried to help their children cope
  • Some non-cognitive coping strategies (e.g., reducing the child’s exposure to news, providing a comfort object) were used more for the youngest (age 3 to 7) than the oldest children (13-17); a few abstract, cognitive strategies (e.g., telling them they’ll probably not get sick) were used least for the youngest group (age 3 to 7).
  • Answering children’s questions and telling them how to keep themselves safe were the most popular strategies used by parents.
  • Most parents thought their coping attempts were at least “somewhat helpful.”


So What’s Next?

When we chose to study the effects of news of COVID, we thought this was going to be the most distressing possible news story: Here was an invisible menace that could sicken or kill you or your loved ones rapidly; everyone’s behavior had to be modified; both schools and leisure activities were closed; and people suddenly were told to stay away from other people who, until then, couldn’t harm them. And people had to be reminded repeatedly of what they could or could not do. At the beginning (when we collected our data), there were no medicines or vaccines that could protect us. All of these changes in real life no doubt intensified whatever effects the TV and digital media were producing.

Fortunately, vaccines and medical advances seem to have converted COVID-19 to a more manageable illness rather than a world-wide scourge. But unfortunately, in the 2020s, many natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, volcanoes, and earthquakes, have become much more common, more geographically diverse, more deadly, unpredictable, and visually harrowing than ever.  We can certainly expect that many young children will find the visual images in these news stories to be alarming and many older youth will find that the dangers presented by these events cause intense distress.

It would be wonderful if the people creating news shows would not ramp up the coverage of every new disaster. We can’t expect distressing content to decrease dramatically, but we can make recommendations to caregivers that might mitigate the impact these messages can have. So I’ll leave a few suggestions:

Research-Based Advice for Parents and Caregivers

  • Keep media out of bedrooms.
  • Limit the amount of time you spend consuming the news when children are present.
  • Remember that children of different ages will understand and react to elements of content differently.
  • Be ready to discuss stressful news situations when children have questions.
  • Be alert to unusual stress symptoms in children.
  • For younger children (3-7 years), try distraction, hugs, comfort toys, and simple, reassuring explanations.
  • For older children, answer their questions in a manner that is hopeful and specific about how to prevent or mitigate depicted harms.
    • Focus on the good news: for COVID; this may involve talking about how vaccines, masks, and medications can help us stay safe.
    • For natural disasters, talk about any progress being made in predicting or preventing future harm; or talk about how first responders are dedicated to helping people.
  • Contact media providers about how they might make their news presentations less traumatizing or about how they might schedule the most alarming content at times children are less likely to watch.


[1] Cantor, J., & Harrison, K. (2022). Parent reports of children’s fright reactions to news of the COVID-19 pandemic: Results from a national U.S.  sample. Media Psychology, 25:4, 565-582.

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